** out of 5
William Castle brings more of his personal flair for the unusual to this film than to the previously discussed film Undertow, but it is also less noir in its overall mood than that film. The script by Fredrick Kohner, who would go on to be perhaps best known for the Gidget series, and Fredrick Brady, who would go on to working mostly in television. This film in many ways is a fair reflection of those later reputations - mostly light entertainment that has humor and not a great deal of depth to its drama. I suppose it's to some degree to be expected from a story that has Mr Magoo as its narrator.
Despite the claims in the opening titles that any similarities to actual persons, etc, etc, the story is that this is inspired partly by the real-life tale of the mysterious death of Willaim Desmond Taylor, as well as having allegedly intentional similarities between the Richard Conte character and Orson Welles in their corresponding fictional and actual attempts as broadway producers to come to Hollywood and make a film based on real-life figures.
Richard Conte plays a stage producer who has come to Hollywood to make a film, and decides after a tour of the studio that seems as much for our benefit as for his, to make his story about the death of a silent movie producer/director who was killed on that lot many years previously, but whose murder was never found. Supporting Conte is an able and varied cast of characters.
Julia Adams plays the daughter of the woman in the cold case being investigated by Conte, and she spends a lot of time protecting characters she fears are being wrongly suspected or harmed by his digging up of the past for his film. Henry Hull has an interesting part as Vincent St. Clair an old-time screenwriter with connections to the murder. who Conte digs up to craft his script for him. Fred Clark, having just played a film producer the previous year in the great hollywood noir Sunset Boulevard, plays another one here, in a part that ranges from comedy to drama in equal measure. Jim Backus, as alluded to earlier, is the narrator, telling the story from his character's perspective as Conte's old friend and Agent, bringing healthy doses of humor to his scenes, with dryly delivered lines like "Who would want to kill and agent?"
I made a joke on Twitter while watching this, basically saying I thought based on the opening sequence that the film could alternatively have been titled "Shoot the Player Piano," but as I got farther in I found that actually that player piano becomes an important plot point and clue that helps lead to the killer, so actually that joke title would have been quite a propos, though anachronistic since Shoot the Piano Player didn't come out until about 9 years later.
Much of the film feels crafted to appeal to the fans who wanted to get a peek at behind the scenes of old Hollywood, as well as giving them a nostalgic thrill with the silent movie history elements of the story. Not only is there the studio tour previously mentioned, but we also get a glimpse of Julia Adams playing her character's mother in a scene where Conte is screening some old silent films. Additionally, we have what is essentially a detour to include cameos by several old silent film performers, including Helen Gibson, Francis X Bushman, Betty Blyth, and William Farnum. We also have a scene where Joel McCrea has a cameo as himself, shooting a scene with one of the characters who is a suspect in the murder.
The story never really build in tension to a point where the characters ever truly feel endangered, but while it is moderate in its dramatic aspects, it is a light and entertaining movie that is a pleasant enough way to pass an hour and a half.